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By Devna Bose
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Gray clouds, steeped with rain, swirled above Tuckaseegee Park when a short parade of cars pulled into the parking lot.
One by one, the cars emptied, and dozens of women greeted each other, crying and laughing, having traveled from all over the Southeast to collectively celebrate the life of a sister they had lost.
Jaida Peterson, a Black, transgender woman, was found dead in a west Charlotte hotel room April 4. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officials say she was shot. Detectives are investigating who killed Peterson and why.
She was 29 years old.
Peterson's death is the 26th homicide in Charlotte this year, and she's at least the 14th transgender person killed nationwide since the start of the year, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Murders of transgender people are on the rise, and Black, transgender women are especially at risk. According to the HRC, Black trans women are murdered disproportionately because each of their identities—being Black, being trans, and being women—puts them at a greater risk of being killed and being victims of other forms of discrimination, too.
Many of the Black, trans women at Peterson's vigil on April 9 asked for one thing over and over again: “Just respect us.”
‘SHE DIDN'T DESERVE THAT'
Peterson was born on December 7, 1991, in Florence, South Carolina.
She attended both Hartsville High School and McBee High School and was a longtime member of Mt. Pisgah Presbyterian Church, according to her obituary.
Peterson was 17 years old when she came out. Her best friend since childhood, Tawanda Barnett, knew before Peterson even had to tell her.
Barnett remembers Peterson as someone who always had a smile on her face, someone who was always cracking jokes.
“That was my first best friend and first person I could ever talk to,” Barnett said. “I just don't know how to get it together. I just can't believe something like that happened to my friend. She didn't deserve that.”
Peterson's mother, Mary, just lost a son in 2016. She had last spoken with Jaida just hours before she died.
“My heart is breaking,” her mother said.
VIGIL AFTER DEADLY SHOOTING
At certain moments on Friday, women were sobbing and screaming openly into the wet afternoon air—at other times, they drank Hennessy, toasting to Peterson's life.
Nearly 50 people attended the vigil, many of whom Peterson met either in her home state of South Carolina or in the Queen City.
Brianna Battle met Peterson several years ago in Charlotte, and soon, she became her sister. She describes Peterson as the kind of person who would give anyone the clothes off her back, the food from her table—even if she didn't have enough for herself.
“People just find it easier to kill us because socially, we're at the bottom of the totem pole,” Battle said. “No matter what her gender was, a human life was taken away. She has a family and friends and people who love her.”
Brittany Johnson, another honorary sister of Peterson's, called Peterson her “sweet love” and described her as someone who was laid back but caring toward all of her friends.
“You're so used to hearing about trans violence everywhere else,” Johnson said. “But when it happens to your own sister, it brings another type of perspective to you... That's the hardest part for me—the person who took her life didn't understand who she was.”
DAUGHTERS AND SISTERS
The vigil felt reminiscent of a family reunion—because, in a way, it was.
LGBTQ+ people have had to create communities for themselves throughout history because of the discrimination and hate they experience. They're sometimes ousted from their own families when they come out or unaccepted by their communities. And to get the support they need, they create spaces and families of their own.
The mother of Peterson's “family” goes by Pcok, who describes himself as a former trans woman. He detransitioned out of fear of the violence Black trans women face, but he said he has guided, connected and parented dozens of women over the years, including Peterson and many of the women at the vigil.
“These are Jaida's sisters,” he said, gesturing toward the many women gathered under the park pavilion. “It's a sisterhood that can never be broken, not even in death.”
He said the struggle to be loved and accepted by the community is what leads LGBTQ+ people, especially trans people, to form families of their own. He said Peterson was lucky to have a family who accepted her.
“All of us come from the same struggle. A lot of the time, people in the heterosexual community think that because we live the homosexual lifestyle, that we're a threat to them,” he said. “That's why we depend on our family.”
And Pcok has lost many members of his family over the years.
“I have lost a lot of daughters. I thought I would have left before many of them,” he said. “The hardest thing to do is see these babies leave prematurely. Jaida wasn't even 30. I watched her grow.”
HATE CRIMES ON RISE
Friends of Peterson's said it was painful to get the news of her death and see both the police department and news outlets use the wrong name and gender for Jaida. After learning days later from her friends that Peterson was a trans woman, The Charlotte Observer issued a correction to an earlier story about Peterson's body being found, and removed references to a name Peterson no longer used after transitioning. An obituary used Peterson's old name—commonly referred to as a transgender person's dead name—and male pronouns. However, family members attending the recent vigil and say they supported Peterson in her life as a trans woman.
Mia Camps, who Peterson helped through her transition, said misgendering instances devalue the lives of trans people and contribute to a culture of trans hate.
Hate crimes against transgender and gender nonconforming people are on the rise and have been for years, according to the HRC, which tracks the violence.
Forty-four transgender and gender nonconforming people were killed in 2020—more than any year since the numbers have started being tracked. Last summer, six Black trans women, all younger than 32, were killed in the span of nine days.
Camps said the vigil was important because so many trans people die without being celebrated.
“Most of the time, we don't get no funeral or nothing,” Camps said. “We just get our bodies found. she wouldn't have wanted that.”
At the vigil, family and friends repeated that they want justice for Peterson. On Friday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police announced that two men, Dontarius Long, 21, and Joel Brewer, 33, have been charged with murder in the deaths of Peterson and another transgender woman, Remy Fennell.
Police said the investigation is ongoing, including whether there might be additional victims. At a press conference Friday, police declined to specify a motive but said the fact that both victims were transgender women is “very concerning” and said that they will pursue hate crime charges if appropriate.
A LIFE OF LAUGHTER
Charlotte Uprising fundraised for Peterson's family to be able to host her funeral, which took place Tuesday in South Carolina.
Before the first droplets of rain fell Friday afternoon, vigil attendees bowed their heads, closed their eyes and thought of Peterson as Pcok led them in prayer.
“We thank you for the life that has been lived, Lord God,” he said. “And we humbly ask that you just carry her now in your awesome arms, Lord God. We thank you for the times that we had.
“We thank you for the laughter. We even thank you for the sad moments, because they were moments that we can now look back as memories—and that's something that we can never, ever let go of.”